All the 2020 candidates' (mostly stupid) 'day 1' promises
Over the course of two or three hours on Inauguration Day, candidates assure us, they will single-handedly transform the country
Presidential contenders often seem to believe the best way to convince voters they are Very Serious about a given issue is to promise action on literally their first day in office. Inauguration Day has a packed schedule, but over the course of two or three hours in the afternoon, candidates assure us, they will single-handedly transform this country.
This election cycle is no exception. Of course, as an incumbent, President Trump isn't really making "day one" promises. In the 2016 cycle, he frequently promised to review and repeal economic regulations and unconstitutional executive orders on his first day, once listing a whopping 18 day one agenda items in a single rally speech. In the years since, Trump has mostly touted canceled regulations for energy production and health care for veterans as his first day accomplishments. Most of Trump's uses of the phrase "day one" as president — both in speeches and on Twitter — are not about what he's done but expressions of his belief that he has been unfairly persecuted by political enemies.
The Democratic field, however, is rife with pledges of first-day action. To see what the top eight Democrats — in alphabetical order, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang — are promising for Inauguration Day, I searched news reports as well as each candidate's official Twitter feed and campaign website for incidences of "day one," "day 1," and "first day." Here's what I found.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is the second most prolific first-day promiser, outpaced only by Warren. Many of his day one promises focus on his own experience — he tweets again and again that we need a president who will be ready to govern effectively from the get-go — with environmental policy as a close second. Biden is the only candidate to mention taxes, unions, or the middle class as day one priorities.
Several of Biden's pledges are too vague or subjective to become measurable accomplishments or failures. What counts as "pick[ing] up the pieces of Donald Trump's broken foreign policy," or "bold action" on climate policy, or "rebuilding ... the middle class"? Probably whatever President Biden's speechwriters want it to be come 2024.
1. Be ready to govern: "The next president will inherit a world in disarray. There's no time for on-the-job training — I'll be ready on day one."
2. Restore America's international reputation: "We need a leader who will be ready on day one to pick up the pieces of Donald Trump's broken foreign policy and repair the damage he has caused around the world."
3. Unspecified climate change policy: "On day one, I'll take unprecedented steps to rally the world and tackle this crisis head on." And: "On day one as president, I'll take the bold action necessary to tackle this crisis head on."
4. Unspecified renewable energy policy: "On day one, I'll take bold action to unleash the power of renewable energy and put us on course to become a 100 percent clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050."
5. Federal spending to promote renewable energy: "From day one, President Biden will use every tool at his disposal, including the federal fleet and the federal government's purchasing power, to promote and advance renewable energy, ethanol, and other biofuels."
6. Undo Trump's environmental damage: "On day one, I'll take action to reverse the damage done by this administration and put America on track to lead the world in addressing the climate emergency."
7. Order emissions reductions: "On day one, Biden will use the full authority of the executive branch to make progress and significantly reduce emissions."
8. Make green infrastructure investments: "On day one, Biden will make smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that our buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change."
9. Rejoin the Paris Agreement: "On day one, I'll rejoin the Agreement and rally the world to push our progress further."
10. Undo Trump's asylum limits and return to Obama-era immigration enforcement priorities: "On day one, I will eliminate President Trump's decision to limit asylum and undo his executive orders that eliminated Obama-Biden enforcement priorities on national security and public safety."
11. End Trump's "Remain in Mexico" (MPP) program: "On day one, I will ... end the MPP program."
12. Unspecified support for the middle class: "From day one, my administration will be focused on building an inclusive middle class to ensure everyone has a fair shot at a better future." Also: "From day one, a Biden administration will be focused on rebuilding the backbone of our country — the middle class."
13. Change tax law: "On day one, Joe Biden will move to: Eliminate the Trump tax cut for the super-wealthy; Eliminate the unjustified loopholes in our tax code; Use that money to invest in America's future."
14. Revive American values: "I'm the only one on tonight's stage ready to ... restore our moral leadership on day one."
15. Issue an ethics pledge: "On day one, Biden will issue an ethics pledge, building and improving on the Obama-Biden Administration's pledge, to ensure that every member of his administration focuses day-in and day-out on the best outcomes for the American people, and nothing else."
16. Reverse Trump's policy on transgender troops: "On day one of his presidency, Joe will direct the Department of Defense to allow transgender service members to serve openly and free from discrimination."
17. Return to and expand Obama-era Title IX policies on transgender students: "On his first day in office, he will reinstate the Obama-Biden Administration's directive interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include gender identity, and not just gender; restore trans students' access to sports, bathrooms, and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity; direct his Department of Education to investigate violations of transgender kids' civil rights; and issue new guidance to schools on how to conduct Title IX sexual assault and harassment investigations."
18. Restore federal employees' collective bargaining rights: "On Biden's first day in office, he will restore federal employees' rights to organize and bargain collectively, and will direct his agencies to bargain with federal employee unions over non-mandatory subjects of bargaining."
19. Be ready to implement his agenda for the Latino community: "He will be ready on day one to implement the changes needed for the Latino community to thrive."
20. Ban improper White House meddling with Department of Justice investigations: "On day one of his presidency, Biden will issue an Executive Order directing that no White House staff or any member of his administration may initiate, encourage, obstruct, or otherwise improperly influence specific DOJ investigations or prosecutions for any reason; and he will pledge to terminate anyone who tries to do so."
Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg (D) is the most recent candidate to join the race. I could only locate one first-day promise directly from Bloomberg, as well as one statement from an endorser which is posted on Bloomberg's site.
1. Unspecified action for women: "On my first day in office, I will reverse the damage President Trump has done to women's rights."
2. Unspecified action for the LGBTQ+ community: "He'll make sure it's better for all of us from his first day in the White House," said designer Isaac Mizrahi, as quoted on Bloomberg's campaign site.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) has been sparing with his first-day promises to date, mostly planning to undo Trump administration immigration restrictions. He also mentions rejoining the Paris Agreement, a commonality with Biden, Warren, Klobuchar, and Steyer.
1. End the travel ban: "Three years ago in Houston, I spoke out on this president's Muslim ban. On day one of my presidency, I will end it."
2. Electoral reforms to "strengthen our democracy," including changes to voting procedure and jettisoning the Electoral College.
3. End Trump's "Remain in Mexico" (MPP) policy: "The Remain in Mexico policy endangers lives and betrays America's legal and moral commitment to protect asylum seekers. On day one of my presidency, it will end."
4. Rejoin the Paris Agreement: "We will take the steps necessary to rejoin the Paris Agreement on the first day in office and make clear to the world that we are 'back in, and all in.'"
5. End family separations at the border and other aggressive immigration enforcement tactics: "On day one of my administration, we will reverse this administration's cruel and counterproductive immigration actions that take infants out of their mothers' arms, argue against children having toothpaste or soap, deport veterans, break up families, and sweep up workers in raids while leaving exploitative employers unpunished."
Like Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has made relatively few day one plans. Like Biden, she would devote much of her first day to environmental policy and has emphasized her experience and readiness to govern. However, not to be outdone on promises of speedy governance, Klobuchar has also released a list of 100 action items for her first 100 days, and she promises to begin work on that list on her first day.
1. Rejoin the Paris Agreement: "Get the United States back in the International Climate Agreement on day one."
2. Nominate federal judges: "Fill judicial vacancies by nominating well-qualified judges on day one."
3. Unspecified climate change policy: "Another example of the Environmental Protection Agency no longer protecting the environment. I will fix what this administration has been breaking starting on my first day in office."
4. Begin repairing ally relationships: "Donald Trump has damaged our allies' trust in us — I'll start repairing those relationships starting on my first day in the White House."
5. Be ready to govern: "People are tired of the chaos and the gridlock after two and a half years of Donald Trump. They want to get back to making progress for this country. I'll be ready on day one."
6. Get to work on her 100 action items for her first 100 days: "Here it is: a plan for my first 100 days as president of the United States. The urgent problems our country is facing require immediate action and bold solutions, and I plan to get to work delivering results on day one."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is reportedly developing a comprehensive list of day one actions which has yet to be released. For now, he says he'd spend most of his first day on immigration policy, though he'd also make time to legalize weed.
Most important, to my mind, is Sanders' pledge to immediately end U.S. military intervention in Yemen. He is the only candidate to make a major foreign policy promise like this even though the president has indisputable constitutional authority to end wars — something that cannot be said of many of the candidates' other promises.
1. Legalize marijuana: "On my first day in office through executive order we will legalize marijuana in every state in this country."
2. Undo many (all?) Trump immigration policies: "On day one of my administration we will repeal all of Trump's racist immigration orders."
3. Undo everything Trump has done: "On day one, we take out our executive order pen and we rescind every damn thing that Trump has done."
4. Stop deportations: "On day one, I'll ... put a moratorium on all deportations."
5. Revive DACA: "On the first day of my presidency, I will issue an executive order providing legal status for all DACA recipients and their parents."
6. End the travel ban: "On day one of my administration, I will overturn this xenophobic and discriminatory ban."
7. End family separation at the border: "day one of my administration: ... Ensure federal agents will never snatch babies from their parents' arms."
8. Introduce a path to citizenship: "day one of my administration: ... Introduce legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented people in the U.S."
9. Undo proposed Trump rule concerning Social Security Disability Insurance benefits: "Trump's attack on people with disabilities is disgusting. We will undo his cruelty on day one of my presidency."
10. Allow prescription drug purchases from Canada: "On day one of my administration we will allow Americans to purchase low-cost prescription drugs from Canada."
11. End U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen's civil war: "While I'm very proud of the work we did to pass a War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the devastating Saudi-led war in Yemen, we must reverse the disastrous policies that got us here in the first place. When we are in the White House, we will do this on day one."
12. Ensure compensation for veterans exposed to Agent Orange: "On his first day in office, Bernie will validate the findings of the Institute of Medicine (now known as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine) to make sure veterans exposed to Agent Orange are compensated for bladder cancer and other illnesses."
Billionaire Tom Steyer has one overwhelming priority for his first day in office: To take a page from Trump's book and declare a national emergency, except for climate change instead of border security. This promise is mentioned dozens of times on Steyer's website, and he tweets about it incessantly.
The rest of his promises are fairly similar to those of his competitors, with considerable attention to immigration and climate change, though he distinguishes himself with the sole first-day plan to undo Trump's trade war.
1. Declare a national emergency for climate change: "On day one of my presidency, I'll declare climate change a national emergency and use the full powers of the executive office to help save our only planet."
2. Undo Trump changes to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program: "Trump's Education Secretary has been a disaster for student borrowers. She's gutted the much-needed Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, choosing loan servicing companies over vulnerable students. This changes day one."
3. Unspecified reparations policy: "The media isn't asking about reparations, but that won't stop me from talking about it. Beginning to right the greatest injustice in our nation's history — and the present — starts on day one."
4. Rejoin the Paris Agreement: "I'll recommit the United States to the Paris Agreement and declare climate change a national emergency on day one."
5. End Trump's trade war: "Mr. Trump 's failed Trade War is a war on Americans — especially farmers and farm communities. As President, I would end it on day one."
6. Revive DACA: "On his first day as president, Tom will move to protect immigrant communities who have been under attack. He will use executive action to reinstate and extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program."
7. Revive DAPA: "On his first day as president, Tom will move ... enact Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)."
8. End the travel ban: "On his first day as president, Tom will ... end the racist Muslim travel ban."
9. Revive Temporary Protected Status designations: "On his first day as president, Tom will ... redesignate nations as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) so those fleeing war or natural disasters can rebuild their lives without fear."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) loves promising to do stuff on her first day in office. Her list is both longer and larger in scope than those of her rivals. It's also the most explicitly partisan: While Biden includes some pledges of better values and ethics rules, Warren is the only one with multiple plans specifically targeting Trump, including publishing documents related to his impeachment and ousting his appointees.
Warren's promise to immediately cancel trillions in student loan debt is perhaps the single most famous item from any candidate here. She argues that this would be a legal option for executive action, though it remains to be seen whether the courts would agree. Measured by the number of mentions on her website and Twitter, Warren's second most valued day one action is banning fracking and drilling offshore and on public lands.
1. Cancel student loan debt: "I will start to use existing laws on day one of my presidency to implement my student loan debt cancellation plan that offers relief to 42 million Americans."
2. Increase the minimum wage for federal contractors: "I will sign an executive order on the first day of my administration to require all federal contractors to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage."
3. Push to stop classifying freelancers, Uber drivers, and similar workers as contractors instead of employees: "I will use every administrative tool available to end worker misclassification from the day I enter office."
4. Investigate racial disparities in student debt: "My administration would start canceling student loans on day one — and open a civil rights investigation into racial disparities in student debt."
5. Investigate reports of racial discrimination in farming: "I'll appoint a civil rights ombudsman to help Black and Brown farmers navigate the complaints process. My Department of Justice will further step in to investigate persistent misbehavior and ensure complaints are resolved — starting on day one."
6. Investigate reports of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination: "My administration will make investigating complaints of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination a priority from day one."
7. Racially diversify federal retirement fund investments: "I've pushed the federal government to seek out investment managers of color to manage federal funds. On day one of my presidency, I will direct all federal pension and retirement funds to seek out a more diverse set of investment managers, building on successful programs like the Smaller Asset Managers Pilot Program."
8. Secure unspecified health-care policy changes, including protection for pre-existing conditions: "Starting on day one of my presidency, I will protect people with pre-existing conditions, and work to reverse the Trump Administration's sabotage of our health care system."
9. Ban fracking and drilling off-shore and on public land: "On my first day as president, I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking — everywhere."
10. Stop all mining on public land: "On day one, I'll do everything a president can do all by herself to fight this crisis: Roll back the changes that Trump is putting in place, stop all new drilling and mining on federal lands..."
11. Unspecified economic changes: "On day one, we will start to make big, structural change to end the rigged economy and to create a new set of rules — rules that give everyone a chance to succeed."
12. Unspecified voting changes: "On day one, we will start to make big, structural change to put the people in charge of our democracy — so we hear everyone's voice and count everyone's vote."
13. Extend New START: "The New START treaty will expire exactly one year from today, further increasing the risk of nuclear war. Donald Trump can agree to extend this critical treaty today — but if he does not get the job done, I will move to extend the agreement on my first day in office."
14. End the travel ban: "I'll reverse the Muslim Ban on my first day in office, and I won't stop fighting against policies that scapegoat and hurt Muslim communities and families."
15. Increase wages for women of color: "On day one of a Warren administration, I will take executive action to boost wages for women of color." And foster their career opportunities: "On day one of a Warren administration, I will take a series of executive actions to boost wages for women of color and open up new pathways to the leadership positions they deserve."
16. Publish all Trump impeachment documents: "On day one as president, I will order the release of every document related to this impeachment inquiry that the administration has been hiding."
17. Restore Obama-era housing discrimination rules: "We must renew our fight against housing discrimination, and I'll start on day one. As president, I'll restore the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule to help end housing segregation."
18. Rejoin the Paris Agreement: "I'll move to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on day one of my presidency."
19. Remove every Trump appointee except those whose absences would harm national security: "On day one of my presidency, I will take aggressive steps to root out the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration, starting by removing all political appointees, except those necessary to preserve continuity and protect national security."
20. Investigate Trump administration corruption: "On day one of my presidency, I will take aggressive steps to root out the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration and to hold that administration accountable."
21. Fill all major staff positions: "My transition will move faster than any transition in modern history to identify appointees and develop plans for making change starting on day one. ... And that is why I am committing to announcing my choices for the Cabinet by December 1, 2020, other top nominations by December 15, 2020, and fully staff all senior and mid-level White House positions by Inauguration Day. Historically, the Obama administration was the most successful at sending nominations to the Senate, delivering 35 nominations for confirmation on his first day in office. As president, I will send the largest package of nominees to the Senate for confirmation on day one. In addition, I will have the senior and mid-level ranks of my White House fully staffed on day one, so that we can hit the ground running."
22. Increase diversity in the executive branch with multiple demographic recruitment quotas: "My administration will be committed to diversity and inclusion, starting on day one."
23. Reverse Trump's policy on transgender troops: "Just over six months ago, the Trump administration began implementing Trump's shameful ban on transgender service members. When I am president, I will reverse this policy on day one."
24. Lowering prescription drug prices: "On day one, I'll do what a president can do all by herself: Defend the Affordable Care Act and reduce the costs of prescription drugs like insulin, HIV AIDS drugs, and EpiPens."
I could not locate any day one promises from entrepreneur Andrew Yang. This strikes me as intentional, because Yang has always been incredibly detailed about his policy agenda. He has issue pages for topics other candidates will never address, like ending Daylight Saving Time, offering free marriage and financial counseling, and telehealth. If Yang wanted to make promises about his first day in office, he would have done so.
Yang's rejection of day one promises is refreshing, because the first-day agenda is mostly a stupid, gimmicky way to communicate policy priorities.
The chief problem with a lengthy list of day one plans is the dubious legality of so many of these proposals. Some are obviously in the clear: Sanders' proposal of ending U.S. military support for Saudi war crimes in Yemen, for example, or Warren's plan to complete her Cabinet appointments early and Klobuchar's judicial nominations, or anything that involves simply reversing a previous president's executive order.
But there are many other ideas here which will unquestionably be subject to lengthy court battles. Whatever she claims about current law, Warren's student debt plan is obviously among them, as is Steyer's national emergency, Biden's tax law changes, Sanders' legal weed, and more. I would love to see an end to federal marijuana prohibition, but it's banned by the Controlled Substances Act, a law passed by Congress. A President Sanders could direct federal law enforcement to locate their priorities elsewhere, functionally decriminalizing pot, but he can't unilaterally legalize it. That's not how it works.
American presidents have far too much power, yet it doesn't take much foresight to realize a lot of this stuff would be in legal limbo for months, if not years, after Inauguration Day. That would create a harmful climate of legal uncertainty for the people affected, like how legal U.S. residents got stuck in airports when Trump rolled out his travel ban.
The next president should eschew dramatic first-day orders to have a shot at making lasting change in Washington. On Inauguration Day, do the speech, go to the dance, and go to bed. The next day, start working with Congress on actual legislation. It probably won't be exactly what you wanted, but your successor won't be able to undo on day one.